Children Are Not Powerless: A Disagreement With Janet Pais

If you are familiar with my work, you know how influential Janet Pais and her 1991 book Suffer the Children: A Theology of Liberation by a Victim of Child Abuse have been in my life. That book was my first introduction to the idea and possibilities of child liberation theology—and it has guided me over the last 7 years as I have written my own book on the topic, The Kingdom of Children: A Child Liberation Theology. (Click here to learn more about my book, which will be published by Eerdmans sometime in 2023.)

My interest in Pais’s work has been contagious. I first began blogging about Pais and her book in 2015. In 2018, Dr. Craig L. Nessan of Wartburg Theological Seminary wrote an article for Currents in Theology and Mission on child liberation theology that cited both Pais as well as my blog posts about her. Similarly, in 2021, Australian pastor Rohan Nelson wrote a review for the same journal on Pais’s book that also cited my blog posts about her and her book. I am glad that my interest in Pais has inspired other people to learn about her, as I believe Pais and her work deserve far more attention than they have so far received.

Over the last 7 years, as I wrote my own book and kept going back to Suffer the Children to engage and wrestle with Pais’s ideas, I have written numerous times about her. I wrote about her comparison between abused children and the protests of marginalized groups, her child-centric Christology, and her hermeneutics of suspicion. I cited Pais in articles critical of my upbringing in the evangelical homeschooling world, using her ideas to scrutinize people like Voddie Baucham and Alex and Brett Harris. I have discussed her on podcasts and in speeches. Any time I get the opportunity, I try to promote Pais and her ideas as I believe they are revolutionary and vital to the future flourishing of humanity.

Today, however, I will be doing something different. Today I am going to critique and pushback on a central idea that Pais promotes—an idea that I believe is actually adultist in nature and the very sort of sentiment that Pais so bravely and brilliantly critiques and pushes back against throughout her book. In her book, Pais discusses the idea of adultism—the idea that the adult way of doing, feeling, and thinking things is superior or better than the child way. Adultism is a frequent target in Pais’s book, and she does an excellent job of explaining just how damaging adultism can be to a society.

In the second chapter of her book, Pais discusses adultism directly. There, she sets forth the contours of her liberation theology for child abuse survivors. While doing so, she writes the following: “I assert the right, which blacks, women, and the economically oppressed have claimed, to question basic assumptions of traditional interpretation that may result from and perpetuate oppressive systems. In relation to children, such assumptions might be called ‘adultist’” (15).

Unfortunately, while Pais critiques and pushes back against adultism, she also retains some adultist ideas herself. Several times in her book, Pais makes comments about the powerlessness of children—and I want to challenge those comments. Pais first describes the alleged powerlessness of children in reference to oppression. On page 16, Pais writes the following: “Each oppressed group has found it necessary to speak for itself and to create its own liberation theology. To the oppressed, outsiders who attempt to speak on their behalf, however supportive their intentions, seem to have a condescending or patronizing attitude.” This is all true so far. And it leads to an important conclusion, which Pais observes: “‘I will help you’ often translates as ‘I will do for you what I do not think you are capable of doing for yourself.’”

While Pais recognizes that marginalized groups deserve the rights of self-determination in this paragraph, she immediately dismisses these facts in the next paragraph with reference to children: “The case of children as an oppressed group is unique. Children do not have the education or the resources necessary to speak for themselves or, having spoken, to effect any change.” This means that, to Pais, adults must be the ones who fight for children’s liberation. ‘The movement for the liberation of children,” she emphasizes on page 17, “must originate with the advantaged, the adults.” 

But what can children themselves do? This is where I most disagree with Pais, who erases and dismisses the possibility of child activism on pages 16 and 17: “Children are innately powerless to do anything about their oppression. The only ‘actions’ available to children in reaction to their abuse, such as conforming to adult wishes, running away, dropping out, suicide, substance abuse, behavior problems, and mental illness, tend not to liberate children, but rather to make their oppression worse.”

I think there are two aspects to this claim that need to be addressed. The first aspect is about the power children have in relation to adults. The second aspect is the innate, inherent power children have as human beings. Let’s start with the first aspect. The first aspect is, I think, what Pais is primarily referring to. Namely, it is true that children are generally powerless in relation to adults. In relation to adults, who have all sorts of legal, political, and social rights, children have very few rights. Children are certainly not empowered by our legal, political, or social systems, and those systems often are intentional about stripping children of the few rights they have.

However, while children are so frequently disempowered by our current structures and systems, children are always and forever human and thus retain an innate, inherent power within themselves. As humans, children can be creative, fierce, resourceful, and valiant. They are capable of meeting and overcoming abuse and oppression—just as much as adults are. While children might have fewer tools and fewer resources to do these things, that does not mean their capability to meet and overcome abuse and oppression is any less. It just means that children might require more scaffolding in order to accomplish the same things. But just like adults, children can speak up against abuse and oppression, they can organize and protest against abuse and oppression, and they can create art, spread ideas through social and news media, and make a lasting impact on both their local and wider communities as well.

Here are just a few examples of constructive actions children can take when they encounter abuse and oppression:

  • Children can educate themselves about issues that pertain to and impact them, reading articles and books and conducting interviews and research to increase their knowledge and expertise.
  • Children can share their stories at home, church, and school to educate others and bring awareness to issues that are relevant and pressing to children.
  • Children can write press releases and organize media events to garner media coverage about issues impacting children.
  • Children can use social media and other types of media (such as art or music or writing) to create public awareness campaigns.
  • Children can advocate for legislation by partnering with groups with similar goals, building coalitions, and writing letters to community leaders and legislators to advocate for local, state, and federal laws.
  • Children can run for office in their schools and extracurricular clubs, using student government positions to learn skills for governing and push for change.
  • Children can form organizations with peers and adults to advocate for other children, like LGBTQIA support groups in schools.
  • Children can participate in protests by helping plan the events, create signs and chants, and attend the physical marches and rallies.
  • Children can conduct surveys about issues they care about and share the results to advocate for change.
  • Children can organize bake sales and car washes and other fundraising activities to raise money for causes they care about.
  • Children can engage in community service, like helping with a soup kitchen or shelter for unhoused individuals.
  • Children can report child abuse they experience or see other children experience to trusted adults like mandatory reporters and other child protection professionals.
  • Children can participate in elections, serving as volunteers at vote centers and polling places as well as helping register adults to vote.

Furthermore, it’s important that we highlight the fact that children are not merely capable of doing these things. They already have done, and continue to do, these things! Children have fought for their own liberation, and the liberation of the people they love, since the beginning of time. We see this fact throughout the Bible, as children like Miriam, Samuel, and Naaman’s enslaved servant girl do all sorts of amazing, courageous feats, overcoming immense adversity and pain. We see this fact throughout history, as children have organized mass social and political movements to fight for better labor conditions, to fight for civil rights for people of color, and to demand better and more accessible schools. We see this today, as children fight against gun violence, climate damage, and systemic racism.

In short, children can be advocates, revolutionaries, and world-changers just as much as adults! Instead of telling children they are powerless against abuse and oppression, then, we should be equipping and empowering children to rise up and meet the challenges they already face and will continue to face. Children right now have agency and voices. To ignore that fact is adultist.

To fight against that adultism, we need to listen to and partner with children and meet them where they are at. We need to take our cues from them on how we can best help them cope with and struggle against life and its many challenges. That means believing children’s current agency and voices have meaning equal to those of adults.

While Janet Pais and Suffer the Children are revolutionary in their approach to theology and child protection, fusing the two topics together into Pais’s unique take on child liberation theology, the book has some flaws and limitations. One of these, as I have explored in this piece, is an overemphasis on the powerlessness of children. This overemphasis unfortunately and ironically reduces children to things to protect, instead of seeing children as they truly are: human beings who not only face unique challenges from systemic abuse and oppression against themselves and their peers, but also are capable of and deeply invested in liberating both themselves and those around them from that abuse and oppression. 

Children can do more than suffer; they can do more than experience the effects of trauma. They can rally and fight against suffering and sometimes even triumph over it due to their creativity, ingenuity, and tenacity. Children do this—and want to do this—because they are human beings just like us. They are imaged after the same God we are.

Children are not victims, powerless to resist life’s hardships. Children are fighters and survivors—each of them powerful in their own unique way.